LANDOVER – Most of us take it for granted that we have a warm home to return to after a cold day, but not everyone is so lucky.
Each year, communities around the country devote a day during the winter season to hitting the streets to make a count of homeless persons and offer assistance. The annual Point-in-Time Homeless Count was held this year on Jan. 25, and Prince George’s County government had the support of citizen volunteers and other community groups in completing the work.
“Our goal on the street is always the intent of identifying people who are experiencing a housing crisis and connecting them with services to help them re-establish housing stability,” said Renee Pope, assistant director of community services with Prince George’s County Department of Social Services (DSS).
To conduct the count, DSS staff divided the county into six zones. Teams were dispatched in each zone to areas where homeless people were likely to congregate, such as parks, libraries, bus stations, fast food restaurants, and shelters, as well as areas where residents, DSS staff or police reported frequent gatherings of homeless persons. The teams conducted surveys of the people they encountered to gather data, and offered them assistance, from toiletries and cold weather gear to rides to county shelters.
Pope said the teams contained diverse members to help homeless individuals feel comfortable and be more willing to open up. Of particular importance this year were the younger volunteers, some of whom are members of the agency’s youth advisory board. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requested that this year’s count include a focus on unaccompanied homeless youth age 13-24, and the younger volunteers were part of the county’s strategy to reach those youth.
“Our approach is different. They don’t typically say, ‘Oh, I’m homeless.’ That term is more of an adult term,” she said. “So the approach we came up with is asking things like, are you okay? Do you have a place to stay? Can you stay in the same place tonight that you did last night? And then we can help them address it. Having young people there was really beneficial to the process.”
Although the federal focus on homeless youth was new this year, Pope said the Washington region and the county, has collected data and reaching out to them for years. Data from the 2017 point-in-time count won’t be released until around May, Pope said. But according to the 2016 “Homelessness in Metropolitan Washington” report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), 16 children without adults were counted during last year’s point-in-time count, with three in Prince George’s County. The count also found 22 single youth aged 18-24.
“Children face particularly adverse effects from experiencing homelessness. Children are often dislocated from familiar surroundings, relatives, friends and neighborhood schools when their families become homeless,” the report said. “Children experiencing homelessness may have poor nutrition, increased incidence of health impairments, higher exposure to violence and severe emotional distress.”
In total, 544 homeless persons were counted in Prince George’s County during the 2016 count, which is a decrease of 13 percent over 2015 and 15 percent since 2012’s count. That number represents about 0.06 percent of the county’s total population.
Pope said many of this county’s homeless persons are episodically, rather than chronically, homeless.
“Some event occurs that causes a disconnect between income and bills they have to pay,” she explained. “Most of the homeless families are one and done. They experience homelessness, we embrace them and give them the support they need to move forward, and they’re off.”
The 2016 count only recorded 20 chronically homeless individuals in Prince George’s County. There were 34 in 2015. This downward trend has been happening all over the region, the COG report said.
“The number of chronically homeless persons declined by 831 persons (28 percent) between 2012 and 2016 and by 175 persons (8 percent) from 2015 to 2016,” it reads. “The two jurisdictions with the greatest percentage reductions since 2015 are Prince George’s County for the second year in a row (41 percent) and Arlington County.”
The point-in-time count data is used by the federal government to allocate resources to jurisdictions fighting homeless, Pope said. At the county level, it also guides resource decisions.
“It helps us to make decisions around programming, if there is an increased need for a service to make them more effective, or if there are gaps between the need and the service locations,” Pope said.
But she added the most important affect from the count is that it provides another opportunity for her staff to go out into the community and begin to interact with the people who need help. It also lets the community get involved, through volunteering, donating money or items, providing information and more.
“It helps to raise awareness across the county, even after the day,” Pope said. “I think in Prince George’s County we have a great community and a lot of support for reaching back to and giving a hand up to folks. The count can make us more mindful and observant as we go about our daily lives.”
The Prince George’s County Homeless Hotline phone number is 1-888-731-0999.